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BOOK REVIEW

'Drive' offers an exhilarating ride

Drive A Novel James Sallis Poisoned Pen Press: 160 pp., 19.95

February 03, 2006|Scott M. Morris | Special to The Times

IN James Sallis' new novel, "Drive," we meet Driver, a humble boy from Phoenix who has made good in the film industry as a stunt driver. The best car driver in the business, he also offers his services to crooks for the occasional heist. When we meet him, he's wowing Hollywood directors, who are impressed that complicated chase scenes can be filmed in just one take. He's pals with a brainy director. He's also just gotten another getaway gig.

Wait, no. That's not when we meet Driver. Because that's not how Sallis, who likes his noir elliptical, operates. Sallis has written poetry and a shelf full of novels, including the New Orleans-based Lew Griffin series, as well as a biography and musical criticism. He makes his stories careen and double back like the high-speed chases in this novel, zooming from surface streets to freeways to past, present and future with daring agility. As it happens, the book begins more than halfway through the plot chronology, with Driver watching blood seep from a woman who was an accomplice to his recent heist. They've been double-crossed; the deal's gone bad; somebody wants him dead too.

"Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the blood lap toward him," Sallis writes, "Driver would wonder if he had made a terrible mistake."

Indeed he has. And thank goodness, because Driver's troubles make for a great story.

Which takes us back to Los Angeles and his stunt jobs, and we begin working forward toward that Motel 6. Driver's not much of a talker, the kind of guy often described as laconic. But he has a vicious right hook, and he's observant. Although he figures out who is trying to kill him, that's not really the point of this slim novel. The point is what he does about it. Let's just say he's no therapist.

Driver is, well, driven. And pursued. And witty. One of the guys who has ordered a hit on him owns a pizza parlor. As Driver encounters the goons sent by the pizza man, he initiates a series of Hallmark moments. After dispatching each hit man, he leaves a brochure from the pizza parlor as a calling card. Strangle a fellow with piano wire, leave an ad for a special on pepperoni and mushrooms in his pocket.

Along the way, the reader gets to explore some L.A. scenery, which Sallis is adept at describing. A restaurant in Culver City is "packed to bursting with mission furniture, plaster shields and tin swords on the wall, red carpeting, a front door like something you'd see on a movie castle.... Wooden tables and chairs distressed, ceiling beams etched with acid, concrete floor ground down by polishers, cracks laid in. Thing is, the food was great."

The author also is accomplished at quick character description. A stunt man Driver meets on set is set up for the reader with a few deft punches: "He had a duck's ass right out of the Fifties, wore an I.D. bracelet that had Your Name engraved on it, and spoke so softly you had to ask him to repeat half of what he said."

"Drive" is full of sly humor, poetic details and plenty of rude violence, as is necessary when a man is fighting and driving for his life. The novel is a terrific ride, and true to form, Sallis leaves us with an enigmatic teaser of an ending.

Does Driver survive? Yes and no. Until the next installment, it's been awfully fun to watch the kid behind the wheel.

Scott M. Morris is the author of the novels "The Total View of Taftly" and "Waiting for April."

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